In the mid ‘90s, the loopy, lo-fi Southern psych-pop of the Elephant 6 collective emerged as an attractively quirky alternative to the amped-up alt-rock monopolizing the airwaves. The Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, of Montreal and others proudly unfurled their homemade E6 freak flag. But Olivia imploded at the decade’s end, splintering into the Sunshine Fix and Circulatory System, but reunited for 2005’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. Now they’re reissuing their albums Dusk At Cubist Castle and Black Foliage on vinyl with a bounty of bonus material, and planning a new full-length release in over a decade. Their digital single “The Game You Play Is In Your Had,” is available today on iTunes, and you can stream it at NPR. Co-frontman Bill Doss and multi-instrumentalist John Fernandes talked to Hive about psychedelic statesmanship, fractured friendships, life-altering illness, and the relative merits of the gummy fetus.
I understand there’s a new Olivia Tremor Control album in the works.
John Fernandes: Hopefully sometime next year. Right now we have close-to-final mixes of seven or eight new Olivia Tremor Control songs. We’re gonna try to play a few songs from that record on this tour. There’s a lot of great songs [on it]. I feel like we’ve gotten even better. Better at playing our instruments, better singers. We still have a really layered sound, there’s lots of layering of different sounds and instruments.
Bill Doss: From the time that Will and I started four-tracking again around 2005 we had just been sort of loosely working on stuff, and then at some point we once again amassed a lot of material and somebody made the obvious suggestion: “Why don’t we make a record?”
I came up with this idea: we could put out a record on a USB drive, and we could put our logo on it…and then of course the very next day I read that the Flaming Lips had done that. They released three new songs on a USB drive buried inside a gummy fetus. You have to eat the fetus to get to the music. It’s brilliant! Of course there’s nothing like holding a double-vinyl gatefold in your hand and just staring at the artwork. It’s something that I grew up doing in the ‘70s. I’ve got a pretty massive collection of vinyl still, which is kind of funny at the moment, because my turntable doesn’t work right now. [Laughs.]
You’re touring throughout September, are you doing any dates with Jeff Mangum?
JF: We’re playing All Tomorrow’s Parties in December; that’s curated by Jeff, and he’s playing that.
BD: Sometimes, if we’re around where he is, he’ll jump up onstage with us, whether we want him to or not. [Laughs.] That’s always fun. Sometimes we’ll set up a little percussion station. That’s one of the things he likes to do, and he’s so good at it, doing double drums along with the drummer, and he’ll sing on songs that he sang on back when he was with the band, stuff like that.
The band began in Louisiana as Synthetic Flying Machine, with Bill, Jeff, and Will Cullen Hart. How did that evolve?
BD: When Will and I were doing Synthetic Flying Machine, Jeff was kind of in and out, he was moving around a lot, and of course at some point he left permanently to pursue Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff had a song called Olivia Tremor Control, and Will had a song or a painting or something called Neutral Milk Hotel. Basically Jeff named us and Will named his project.
How did the Elephant 6 concept originate?
JF: In Louisiana, we kind of had to band together to help each other out. Everyone was making records on four-track and we decided to put the Elephant 6 logo on them as a way to band together and show some unity. Listening back to those records it kind of blows my mind how much we stacked and how we synced tape machines, and did all sorts of stuff on an eight-track reel-to-reel. Everyone’s hands had to be on the board…you had to be pretty inventive.
Was the band listening to a lot of ‘60s psych pop?
JF: Will would put on Brian Wilson’s Smile all the time, a bootleg tape that we had.
BD: Obviously the Beatles, Beach Boys, stuff like that, but also a lot of the musique concrete people: Pierre Henry, John Cage. I think the influence from those guys was more like theory – not necessarily trying to make sounds like they made but trying to make sounds the way they went about it.
The mid-‘90s weren’t exactly a boom time for neo-psychedelia.
BD: Most of the bands that were starting out around the time that we did wanted to sound like Nirvana. And we kind of considered ourselves the antithesis of grunge. Why get up there and moan and groan about life when you could get up there and sing about how great life is? Sebadoh was a big influence, Pavement…it was obvious that they were recording at home on four-tracks, and it was like “If they can do this, then we can do this!”
What precipitated the breakup of the band?
BD: Toward the end of ’99 we were touring a lot, recording a lot, had a lot on our plate. Right around that same time — we found this out later — Will was starting to get early symptoms of multiple sclerosis. At some point I was trying to plan for the next year, and he got a little freaked out about that. He wanted to, not stop the band, but take a break. And of course I didn’t want to do that and we got into a big falling-out about it. We didn’t speak for years, and it was horrible, it was one of the worst periods of my life. Here I am not speaking to my best friend.
How did you finally patch things up?
BD: I got a call saying that Will was in the hospital…he found out that MS was setting in pretty heavily. And that’s when it occurred to me, “God, why are we not playing music, and why are we not friends? This is just stupid.” I went over to his house and said, “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done.” And he said the same thing. Then the clouds parted and the sun came out and we just started hanging out and four-tracking again just like in high school. Things started building, and one of the other guys in the band heard the tapes and said, “Why aren’t we playing this stuff?” Just around that time, we did the reunion shows in 2005. After that we just got full-fledged into it again.
What made you decide to reissue the OTC albums on vinyl?
JF: People have been asking for a while if those records are gonna come out on vinyl, and Henry [Owings] at Chunklet had offered to put them out.
BD: Also I’ve wanted to remaster Black Foliage for a long time because I was never really thrilled with the sound of that record. And of course you’d look on eBay and there’s be a copy of the vinyl for 50 or 60 bucks or something, which is kind of cool, but at the same time you want the fans to be able to get it for a fair price.
And they come with hours of bonus material via digital download cards.
BD: We probably had about 20 or 30 DATs of stuff that didn’t get released, and then we had a lot of b-side stuff… we just wanted to include everything. We found an old song that was gonna be on Dusk that we re-imagined… added all kinds of new overdubs and vocals, we’re trying to get it out for the tour. It’s gonna be a digital release. It’s a little three-song suite that Will wrote called “The Game You Play Is In Your Head.”
Can you hear any Olivia influence in younger bands today?
BD: I heard MGMT, and I’ve heard people say “Oh they’re obviously influenced by Elephant 6,” but what I heard was them being influenced by what we were influenced by, because it sounded really like Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.
JF: I think music has taken a turn in a good direction. Like Animal Collective, when I was listening to one of their records… it almost sounded like Brian Wilson but with more layers of electronic sound, and I was like, “Wow, that’s great that this is what a lot of people are listening to these days, because we’ve been doing Brian-influenced stuff for a long time, combining it with more experimental kind of things.” If people are more into that kind of stuff it seems like it’s a good time for Olivia to re-emerge.
Olivia Tremor Control kick off their North American tour August 31 in Austin, TX.